Monday, November 27, 2006

Memories of a pontiff

The death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI were events covered live by all major US and European networks, including the 24-hour global news channels. I was in the United States when both events captured global attention and gathered leaders of governments and religions together in unusual solidarity with the Roman Catholic faithful--and unfaithful--all over the world.

As nonstop and sleepless I shifted from CNN to BBC to MSNBC to Fox to the local US networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) to catch whatever I could of the transition from John Paul to Benedict, coverage and analyses alike, I remembered I had written a piece in the late '70s about the time I was working for a local radio-television network, how I was affected by an earlier pontiff's visit to the Philippines and how I felt upon that pontiff's death.

Toward the end of that piece, I made mention of two people: my mother, a deeply spiritual woman who passed away a full decade after the death of Pope Paul VI; and Fr. Leonard Agcaoili, who for a few years was parish priest in my hometown and who was called to his eternal home a few years before my mother. In my memories, the two will always exemplify the religious temper of that time.

"Impressions," TV Times, 27 August-2 September 1978


He always seemed to me a man distressed, torn between the weighty responsibilities of his office and the simple wishes of his warm and sympathetic heart. I could imagine him, wanting only to walk with the poor and the downtrodden through the dark alleys of bustling Milan, yet forced to don his purple robes and pace the gloomy corridors of a splendid palace in regal Rome, isolated from the mainstream of life and reality. That he was unable to reconcile the demands of power with the desires of his person must have been his true cross, his agony.

Not that he did not want the office, I think. The desire for power, ambition--both well up from the deep springs of the human heart, and even simple men hope for a measure of public recognition and a slice of orthodox authority. Paul VI must have traded his cardinal's red hat for the pope's gold miter with equal joy and fear. And his pontificate, in retrospect, appeared a mixture of both: joy and fear.

I was already in the broadcast industry when he came over to visit the country, the first Roman Catholic pontiff to do so in more than three centuries of Philippine Catholicism. As part of a documentary team tasked to prepare a series of six (or was it more? I cannot now remember) 30-minuters shown on one of the local television stations prior to the papal visit, I had to read up--for the first time since I left the deeply pious arches of convent school--heavily and deeply, on the papacy. Thus, I was drawn, imperceptibly at first but with growing passion later, into the controversies and conflicts--both theological and natural--that faced the papacy at Paul VI's time more than at any other time in the history of the Church. I knew his anguish and his torment, but felt he had become chained by the circles of conservatism that ringed the seat of Peter.

When I finally caught a glimpse of Paul VI through the thick crowds that surrounded him wherever he went during his Manila visit, I was moved as I probably never would be moved again--in just such a manner--in a lifetime. Young as I was at the time and caught as I was in a highly emotional environment, I immediately branded it as an intense spiritual experience, an "epiphany" such as James Joyce called such moments.

Looking back on all of it now, part of the intensity of my personal experience must have come from the hysteria of the occasion--the surging crowds, the heat, the currents of mass madness. Religion, after all, has been described by men before me, and not without reason, as the opium of the masses. But the other part of the experience must have emanated from the man himself. Such people are born who can steal the hearts of men and women at a glance, who can give a meeting, a moment, a minute, its persistent, throbbing pulsebeat. In politics, it is called charisma; in religion, holiness.

But whatever it really is, this man--Paul VI--had it. And despite the conflicts he could not resolve, the expectations he could not meet, the contemporary hopes he could not fulfill, his death was met with grief and mourning by the whole Church: because men have to believe in something, even if it is an opium; because parents have to build a foundation for their children, even if that foundation must be built on ritual and catechism; because this man Paul, even if flawed and less than integral, laid his life and his faith on each jagged controversy of his papacy.

While I myself could not stay up for the live transmission of his funeral rites nor for its replay, hoping that network executives had chosen to replay the next morning instead of the next evening, I am certain that at least two people stayed up to watch the rites in their entirety, in the dark of night, alone.

One is old, nearing the end of her journey, finding strength to face the inevitable in prayer and faith. The other is middle-aged but sickly, a priest who had actively steered the Church's end of the Press Center at the Philamlife Building in Ermita during that papal visit, and who now, despite illness and physical weariness, continues to carry out his rigorous duties in a parish that experienced a renaissance of faith after he took over.

For the sake of these two people, and many others like them, I am glad the coverage of the funeral rites for Paul VI received its rightful share of time on local television.

-- NBT

No title in original published column

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